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Frank Avila, Democratic candidate for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner

He is currently a commissioner at the MWRD.

Frank Avila, Democratic primary candidate, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner, 2020 election, MWRD
Frank Avila, Democratic primary candidate for MWRD commissioner.
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Candidate profile

Frank Avila

Running for: Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

Political/civic background: The American Society of Civil Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, American Water Works Association, Hispanic American Labor Council, The Midwest Pesticide Action Center, Future City Competition, Irish American Heritage Center, Board of the Mother Jones Heritage Project, Board of These Streets are Holy, Past External Advisory Board for the Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Illinois, Past Board Member of New Hope Food Pantry

Occupation: MWRD Commissioner, Professional Engineer, Professional Land Surveyor

Education: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering, University of Arizona at Tucson, Master of Science in Finance


The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board sent candidates for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the county. Frank Avila submitted the following responses:

What new strategies would you develop to reduce the impact of stormwater on our area’s sewage, flood control and water systems?

I advocate for assessing and strengthening current initiatives. The MWRD employs a number of important strategies to manage stormwater and flooding. In 2004, the Illinois General Assembly empowered the MWRD to develop the Cook County Stormwater Management Plan to provide a framework for a comprehensive watershed based stormwater management program in Cook County. Under this plan, the MWRD established Watershed Planning Councils and completed Detailed Watershed Plans for all six major watersheds in Cook County, initiated a Stormwater Management Capital Improvement Program, started a Small Streams Maintenance Program, and adopted the Watershed Management Ordinance (WMO). In 2014, the MWRD Board traveled to Springfield to request to expand MWRD’s authority to allow for the acquisition of flood-prone properties and to plan, implement, finance, and operate local stormwater projects.

Receiving authority from Springfield in 2004 and 2014, initiatives I supported and advocated for, has been significant for the Cook County region to enact purposeful strategies to combat flooding. The MWRD has emerged as a leader aspiring to transform stormwater culture through the integration of green with gray infrastructure, flood-prone property acquisitions, regulation of development through the WMO, and numerous regional and local flood control projects. Over 140 capital stormwater projects have been developed since 2004 that provide homes and businesses protection from flooding. Not to mention the MWRD’s largest public works project, the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP), a system of deep tunnels and vast reservoirs that will have a total capacity of 20.55 billion gallons when complete.

I support continued review of MWRD initiatives, projects, and goals. Supplementing gray infrastructure with strategic green infrastructure (GI) now plays a key role in easing the burden on MWRD operations as well as providing aesthetic, social and health benefits. Local stormwater projects are crucial to creating a resilient region. These projects help identify where local sewer systems can be improved to convey more water to TARP as well as where to establish drainage, detention and GI such as permeable parking lots, bioswales, and rain gardens for most effective results.

I see four key areas of growth for these important local projects: enhanced outreach to communities, more productive partnerships, timely commencement and completion of projects, and support for maintenance. Improved targeted education and outreach will seek community input and help communities understand the benefits of local projects. Many times there are scheduling delays due to local issues. The MWRD should foster more productive partnerships to explore why projects are being delayed and what can be done to expedite project completions.

Long-term maintenance by well-trained staff of local projects that include GI has also been a point of concern. The Space to Grow program is currently confronting this issue by holding GI maintenance meetings to explore a comprehensive approach to long-term GI maintenance needs in Chicago. The MWRD should work with partners to develop coordinated services across agencies, GI specific job training opportunities, and better assessment of cost and other funding sources for maintenance.

Updated Stormwater Master Plans for the local level will further empower local communities to pursue their own initiatives as well as projects with the MWRD. Not all communities have the capacity to identify or apply for MWRD’s local project call, these Master Plans will provide communities a blueprint for how and where to address stormwater and flooding issues and possible solutions. It is important to work with local communities to find additional avenues of funding, partnerships, and support besides the MWRD. Local municipalities also received GPS units from the MWRD to improve or begin mapping of their sewer systems in GIS, which will improve the capacity to share resources and data, identify issues, and prioritize projects. The Master Plans and new technologies will further ensure there is proper investment in economically disadvantaged areas prone to flooding.

Strengthening the WMO is also important. When I voted to approve the WMO, I made it clear it would be a living document that should be frequently reviewed and updated. The MWRD Board amended the WMO in 2019 to adopt watershed specific release rates, update requirements for redevelopment, and incorporate recently updated rainfall data. The WMO is helping to alleviate flooding, but there are limitations as it applies to suburban Cook County and not the City of Chicago. Most development and combined sewer systems are in the City of Chicago. I advocate for more deliberate collaboration with the City of Chicago.

In order to collaborate with the City of Chicago and other partners it will require creative and strategic thinking. The Space to Grow program has been successful, but other partnerships are needed. Private property solutions, such as contributing financing toward pilot projects that evaluate low-cost technologies (downspout disconnection, check valves, backflow preventers) and GI on reducing basement backups and flooding, could provide opportunity and valuable information for simple ways to address flooding. Finding ways to finance and encourage private property solutions should be explored through collaboration with non-profits and other public agencies.

What role should the MWRD play in addressing climate change?

The MWRD is a proactive leader in addressing climate change. Increasing global temperatures are contributing to extreme, unpredictable weather events including intense rains, flooding, droughts, and reduced air quality. I see the impacts first hand as a MWRD Commissioner. More intense rain events affect the MWRD’s operations, cause flooding, and diminish water quality. I have ensured that the MWRD works to maintain, repair, and update its infrastructure, utilize green and gray infrastructure, and pursue resource recovery and sustainability initiatives. The MWRD also continues to take important steps to analyze its energy use and reduce its carbon footprint. Currently, around 30-35% of the MWRD’s total energy needs are through renewable energy sources of biogas and hydroelectricity at the Lockport Powerhouse. I advocated for the MWRD to analyze how best to increase biogas utilization and incorporate energy efficiency in the design of infrastructure upgrades.

In 2017, I, along with the MWRD Board, passed a resolution to honor the Paris Climate Agreement and continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The MWRD stayed true to that commitment and decreased greenhouse gas emissions by a hefty 30.5% relative to 2005 levels. Upgrades at the MWRD’s Stickney WRP put the MWRD on track to curb emissions even more and reduce its carbon footprint by up to 172,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. That is the equivalent of taking 36,518 vehicles driven for one year off the streets.

Further, the MWRD has distributed over 70,000 free oak tree saplings to help soak up stormwater, capture carbon dioxide and improve air quality. The MWRD’s beneficial reuse of biosolids as a soil amendment has also generated a savings of more than 17,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide through biosolids land applications for crops. The MWRD promotes public education to encourage residents to use rain barrels, plant gardens, native plantings, green roofs, and permeable pavement.

The MWRD is currently developing a comprehensive Climate Action Plan and Sustainability and Resiliency Action Plan to serve as blueprints for climate action goals and provide information to the public about the MWRD’s climate change commitments. I intend to work closely on the plans and be proactive in educating and protecting our communities. Climate change is here and we must act. I am committed to working together with elected officials, public agencies, community groups, and private entities to enact strategies to reverse the impacts of climate change and support a thriving, resilient Cook County.

The MWRD is the second largest landowner in Cook County. What is the ideal disposition of property owned by the district that is not needed for direct corporate purposes?

The MWRD is indeed a major landowner in Cook County. The MWRD’s non-corporate land holdings include approximately 4,900 acres in Cook County, 450 acres in DuPage County, and 670 acres in Will County. State law 70 ILCS 2605/8-8c allows these non-corporate properties to be leased to other parties under specific requirements until they may be required for MWRD purposes. Management of District land currently includes over 179 leases, 394 easements, and 81 permits. The MWRD currently pursues a balanced mixed-use approach with handling its non-corporate use properties. The balanced program seeks to set aside considerable holdings for pubic access and recreational use by leasing to other governmental entities, while maximizing rental income in those instances where MWRD land is made available for private use.

Over 75 percent of MWRD’s leases are to public entities for public recreational and other public use. These leases also require Green Infrastructure to mitigate flooding. I strongly support leasing to other governmental entities for a nominal fee to enhance public access to the waterways, parks, hiking trails, bicycle trails, and other public recreational use. I strongly support green space and public land. The other 25 percent of District leased lands are leased to private parties for business purposes. In 2020, the MWRD will receive approximately $23 million in rental and fee income. I support the MWRD performing a full audit of its leases to ensure its leased land usage is fair, safe, in compliance with lease agreements, and meets environmental standards.      

What should the MWRD’s role be in reducing combined sewer overflows?

The MWRD’s role is to actively work towards reducing and one day eliminating combined sewer overflows (CSOs). To accomplish this goal, the MWRD invests in green and gray infrastructure projects. The Cook County region, however, faces unique challenges with its combined sewer systems and highly developed watersheds that cannot be addressed through MWRD infrastructure alone. Therefore, the MWRD should continue to partner with the City of Chicago, surrounding municipalities and townships, watershed groups, other public and private entities, and concerned citizens to foster strategic watershed-based solutions to reduce CSOs and nurture a better water environment.

In recent years, the MWRD has implemented a successful Green Infrastructure (GI) and Space to Grow program that has helped shift the culture away from relying solely on traditional gray infrastructure to reduce CSOs. Allowing rainwater to soak and seep into the soil instead of the sewer system diminishes the burden on MWRD operations. The projects are evaluated by numerous factors such as number of benefiting structures, household median income, design retention capacity and cost per gallon, whether the project is located in a combined or separate sewer area, and the project’s ability to provide local educational opportunities. The MWRD should continue to analyze how it does outreach and prioritizes infrastructure investments.

The Space to Grow program that transforms Chicago schoolyards by utilizing design elements to reduce flooding exemplifies what can be accomplished when partners work together to conceive educational and practical stormwater solutions for urban areas in need. The MWRD should continue to lead the way with the expansion of its GI program and develop in partnership with the City of Chicago and other entities a more comprehensive watershed-based GI plan to complement existing gray infrastructure. This comprehensive plan should include a strong public outreach and education component and ideas for private property solutions.

These dynamic green infrastructure projects complement the gray infrastructure already in place and under construction through The Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP). TARP is a system of deep, large diameter tunnels and vast reservoirs designed to reduce flooding, prevent pollution and improve water quality. Phase I of TARP was completed in 2006, and phase II, which consists of reservoirs, is almost completed. Since McCook Stage I, Majewski, and Thornton Composite Reservoirs went online, CSOs have greatly decreased in numbers. In fact, CSOs in the Calumet River System have almost been eliminated.

When McCook Stage II is completed in 2029, all three reservoirs will increase the TARP system storage volume to 20.55 billion gallons. TARP is meeting and exceeding expectations by preventing CSOs and basement backups in areas once riddled with those emergencies and by the MWRD’s hard working staff who continuously monitor the waterways. I support a timely completion of TARP Phase II. The MWRD secured $33.8 million from the United States Army Corps of Engineers to cover the federal portion of the remaining McCook Reservoir costs.

How do you see the role of wastewater treatment agencies changing over the next 10 years?

Wastewater treatment agencies were conceived to deal with wastewater as a human health concern by transporting and discharging wastewater in order to avoid disease. Since that time, wastewater agencies expanded to manage pollution and flooding. Today, wastewater treatment agencies such as the MWRD strive to be anchors of innovation that prioritize clean water, nature-based solutions, watershed-based planning, resource recovery, energy conservation, community engagement, and good union jobs. I have been a part of this evolution at the MWRD.

The wastewater agency of the future will continue to evolve and do more to gain a product at the end of the pipe. Agencies will do more to reclaim and exploit resources like biosolids, nutrients, and energy. Water reuse will become a priority as water will become more precious and in demand. Illinois could become a leader in water reuse by using treated wastewater, stormwater, and gray water for beneficial purposes. Agencies will employ marketing departments to promote these many recovered resources to the public.

New technologies will also emerge to filter pollutants such as plastics, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and other emerging contaminants. More membrane technologies will be used to clean water. Decentralized wastewater treatment systems, where communities can treat water at the point of use instead of sending it over miles of pipe to big facilities, will be more common. Building an internal culture of innovation by empowering staff to brainstorm, research, and experiment will be vital to the success of the agency of the future.

Unique collaborations are already being formed, spurred by the need for wastewater agencies to venture outside their traditional span of control to initiate local projects. These exceptional partnerships between public and private entities are integral to foster strategic watershed-based planning. Community partnerships, engagement, and education will be more targeted, meaningful, and productive. The role of wastewater agencies will not merely be to meet regulatory requirements, but to also be community-based clean water and resource recovery centers that promote resilient and livable communities.

The MWRD is part of a multi-agency group exploring ways to keep chlorides out of waterways. Is the MWRD doing enough to push this issue forward? Please explain.

The MWRD, at the request of the IEPA, formed and administered a stakeholder group comprised of state and local governmental agencies, municipalities, and private industry with the goal of reducing chloride discharges and resulting impacts to the waterways. When chlorides or salt enter the waterways, it harms aquatic life and the environment. Most salt enters the waterways from winter deicing through storm sewers and storm runoff from the streets. Salt that enters MWRD treatment plants do not get removed through the treatment process and are discharged back into waterways with the effluent. Led by the MWRD, the Chicago Area Waterways Chloride Initiative Work Group assessed current water conditions, documented current road deicing activities, developed a pollutant minimization plan, identified opportunities to reduce road salt runoff while maintaining public safety, implemented plans, and documented progress.

The most effective way to prevent salt in our waterways is to prevent it from entering. Winter deicing operations must use as little salt as possible, while maintaining public safety. That is why the MWRD has worked to develop Best Management Practices (BMPs) to use salt efficiently, document salt use reduction, examine new technologies, and share data and practices. Many communities and transportation agencies in Cook County are already implementing these new practices and technologies and reaping environmental as well as economic benefits from buying less salt. The MWRD is still actively working on programs to provide trainings, workshops, and other resources to share with stakeholders to help them achieve better deicing practices. This is a long-term group effort by the MWRD and its surrounding communities that will constantly need reassessment of our water conditions, salt use, and exploration of new methods and technologies.

Do you support installing disinfection technology at Stickney, the world’s largest wastewater treatment plant? Please explain.

Installing disinfection technology at Stickney Water Reclamation Plant (WRP) will require research, planning, and inventive strategies from MWRD staff to evaluate the most environmental and cost effective disinfection method to implement. Stickney WRP is the world’s largest WRP and consequently faces unique challenges other facilities don’t confront. Therefore, I support a study to assess the need for and feasibility of adding disinfection to the wastewater treatment process at the Stickney WRP. The MWRD needs to assess the cost, best disinfection technology to utilize (chlorination v ultraviolet), and the current impact of not disinfecting on public health and the environment. I also support the IEPA to conduct a public hearing and an environmental justice analysis as part of its permitting process for the Stickney WRP. The MWRD has already started outreach to the surrounding community, but continued outreach is needed to seek community input.

How would you improve the phosphorus-removal efforts now underway at the MWRD? Do you think this important? Why or why not?

Phosphorus removal efforts now underway at the MWRD are very important. Excess phosphorus harms water quality by fueling algae blooms that decrease oxygen needed by aquatic life. In the Gulf of Mexico, phosphorus washed down by the Mississippi River has created a dead zone. Illinois released the Statewide Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy in 2015 to address the issue of local water quality and gulf hypoxia with a goal of achieving 45% reduction of nutrients like phosphorus leaving the state. The Strategy is used as a basis to guide the MWRD’s phosphorus removal efforts.

The MWRD has been proactive in phosphorus removal efforts and implementing resource recovery initiatives even before required by regulation. Phosphorus enters the MWRD’s plants from several sources including human waste, animal waste, fertilizers, detergents, and cleaning agents. The MWRD is committed to meeting a total phosphorus discharge limit of 1.0 mg/L at three of its plants and a limit of 0.5mg/L annual geometric mean by 2030. In 2018, the annual geometric mean of final effluent total phosphorus concentration at the Stickney and Kirie WRPs was 0.25 and 0.27 mg/L. This a very significant reduction. As a whole, the MWRD removed 86% of all total phosphorus entering its WRPs.

This significant reduction was accomplished by the diligent and innovative work of MWRD staff. As a result, we are focusing on an effective biological instead of chemical removal process. Enhanced biological phosphorus removal is an environmentally friendly, cost effective process that removes phosphorus from wastewater. Chemical phosphorus removal is more effective, but not as environmentally friendly and harsher on MWRD pumps and infrastructure.

Some capital projects the MWRD has engaged in to improve the phosphorus removal process are a $6.7 million project for aeration tank air valve automation at the Stickney WRP; a $4.1 million project to convert two gravity concentration tanks to primary sludge fermenters to provide more usable carbon for the biological phosphorus removal process; and a $1.6 million pilot study for return activated sludge (RAS) fermentation at the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant. Supporting staff innovation and funding necessary capital projects is important to improve phosphorus removal.

As always, the best way to reduce pollutants in the MWRD system is to prevent them from entering. The MWRD voluntarily established a program at its Fulton County site to foster collaboration with the agricultural sector to develop agricultural nutrient reduction practices. The MWRD has ongoing partnerships with the University of IL, IL Central College, IL Farm Bureau, and the Fulton County Farm Bureau. The MWRD also formed a Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) Nutrient Oversight Committee with stakeholders to develop a Phosphorus Assessment and Reduction Plan. This long-term plan will assess conditions in the CAWS, evaluate where excess phosphorus may be causing dissolved oxygen problems, and what steps stakeholders will need to take to resolve these problems. It will be important to support the recommendations from the Committee. I also support a ban on retail sales of phosphorus-containing lawn fertilizer in Cook County. This would help decrease phosphorus from entering the MWRD system.

What is the appropriate role of the MWRD in addressing the problem of Asian carp and other invasive species in Chicago area waterways?

Invasive species are a serious threat to Chicago area waterways, the Great Lakes ecosystem, and the economy. The MWRD is one of many stakeholders who work together to keep invasive species out of our waterways. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction over the navigable waters of the United States and has authority over this issue. The Army Corps approved a $778 million plan to block Asian Carp from reaching the Great Lakes by installing defenses at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, Illinois. Funding for this project, however, is still not clear. It is unclear how much the federal government and the Great Lakes states will contribute. The original cost estimate for the project was $275 million, while the final estimate climbed to $778 million, with potential to reach $832 million. The State of Illinois authorized cooperation with the plan, but has not committed to long-term support without a cost-control strategy and additional cost sharing among the states. Exploring if there are ways to lower the cost of this plan and not putting the burden on Illinois taxpayers is prudent. Nonetheless, a resolution must be reached soon, as the threat of Asian Carp is looming. The MWRD will know better how to provide support once the financing is resolved.

What historical figure from Illinois, other than Abraham Lincoln (because everybody’s big on Abe), do you most admire or draw inspiration from? Please explain.

I draw inspiration from the Native Americans who originally lived in the Chicago area. They created the first master plan for Chicago and understood the importance of our land, lakes, and rivers. WBEZ’s Curious City produced by Jesse Dukes explored what Chicago was like before it was incorporated in 1837 and what role the Native Americans played in shaping the region. I learned that Native Americans established a vast network of trails and portages that were used to trade goods. These trails and portages created the blueprint for the Chicago region. The Potawatomi who lived in the area saw the Chicago portage as a shared resource, available for anybody to use. According to historian and Potawatomi John Low, the Potawatomi believed “the land is Mother Earth. You can’t own it—it’s like owning air, owning the stars.”

Learn more here: https://interactive.wbez.org/curiouscity/chicago-native-americans/

What’s your favorite TV, streaming or web-based show of all time. Why?

The Blue Planet and Planet Earth. Over 70% of our planet is covered by water, but only 2.5% of it is fresh water, and only 1% of that is accessible to people. This is a vital reminder of how important our mission is at the MWRD. Water is life.